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PRINCEVILLE, Kauai — KKCR is a radio station generally defined by its North Shore identity in both politics and music.
In some ways, it is a station in a time warp, driven by an era in which the idealism of the 1960s transitioned to the political turmoil that came from Vietnam and the civil rights movement.
KKCR is about as uniquely Kauai in its flavor as anything could be. It relies on a staff of volunteer disc jockeys, talk show producers and hosts who somehow manage to keep the station on the air 24/7. While there are five paid staff positions — not all full-time — general manager Laura Christine said KKCR is usually desperate for additional volunteer help.
The grassroots radio station had its origins decades ago, long before communication on Kauai began to catch up to the rest of the online world. Now KKCR is upping its game by colonizing much of Honolulu — relaying its Kauai signal through a transmitter on Oahu.
Meanwhile, one of its talk shows has a new twist. Its host, Felicia Cowden, was sworn in Monday as one of the newest members of the Kauai County Council.
Cowden says she will use the show, “Kauai Soapbox,” to better inform Kauai residents and “to work to educate the community, to help understand the issues.
Lest anyone think Cowden will derive unfair political advantage from her new dual roles, she pointed out in an interview that one of her predecessors on the County Council, cable TV personality Dickie Chang, served three terms during which he stayed on the air continuously.
“A lot of times, we attack the county and the government simply because we don’t have enough information,” Cowden said. “I’m going to use the radio to basically crowd source ideas and support. I feel like my council time will be able to reach the public in a way that is very unusual.”
KKCR’s origins evolved from frustration in the 1980s that there was, essentially, no radio communication on the North Shore, a situation that put the area at unusual risk when Kauai was devastated by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
There is a common misconception that KKCR went on the air in direct response to Iniki, but Christine and Don Mussell, the engineer who was responsible for first getting it on the airwaves decades ago, said the planning process substantially predated the hurricane, largely driven by a part-time radio personality of the era, Janet Friend, who was frustrated that no one could hear her on the North Shore.
Her station, which is no longer on the air, was KUAI, based in Eleele. Friend was also known by the air name Janet Planet. She died several years ago.
Mussell was actually on another engineering job in Kentucky when Iniki hit.
“I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “I didn’t know there was a hurricane until someone on Kauai called me.”
Nevertheless, Christine said, “it was the hurricane that got people’s attention and was responsible for moving ahead.”
Today, KKCR is — with KONG Radio, the dominant station on Kauai with both AM and FM signals — one of two radio outlets designated officially to disseminate critical information to the public during an emergency.
The station didn’t start broadcasting until 1994 when it gained legal nonprofit status. Its programming today originates from the same dilapidated building in which it started. While the station is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission in Hanalei, the building and nerve center is on property leased from the Princeville community.
When KKCR went on the air originally, it could scarcely be heard outside of its North Shore home territory. As time has gone on, additional transmitters have been added, including one on Mt. Kahili that puts out 6,000 watts of power.
The station can now be heard nearly everywhere on Kauai, as well as on a large swath of Oahu, where KKCR recently acquired a repeater transmitter as part of a strategy to build a statewide audience using a combination of regular transmission and distribution of its signal digitally by cable television providers throughout the state. The Oahu broadcasts started with a sort of soft opening several months ago, Christine said.
Christine and Dean Rogers, the current chief engineer, said the idea is not to try to compete with Hawaii Public Radio, which KKCR sees as a colleague organization, as much as to assure that KKCR’s signal can be accessed anywhere in the state, though the station’s programming base remains exclusively Kauai-centric.
The station’s primary frequency is 91.9 FM, but backup transmitters add 90.9 and 92.7. On Oahu, the station is at 88.9, where KKCR can be heard over the airwaves from Waianae to Waikiki. Cable customers can get the station through their receiver boxes.
Amy Vanderhoop, a DJ who goes by the air name Diamond, has been doing a regular music show since 2001. She thinks KKCR’s audience divides between people who listen for the music and those who gravitate to its public affairs talk show programming — which tends to have a somewhat left-leaning focus.
She thinks the station’s music fans mostly listen while they’re driving or at work and that KKCR has taken on the role of workplace background music provider.
“Artists and people who work at home, and people working long hours,” she said of the listener base.
Vanderhoop is herself a working ceramic artist and listens to KKCR in her studio when she’s not on the air.
Scott Mijares, who hosts a show that focuses on interviews with surfers, has a similar take.
“KKCR has the unique opportunity to share the the spirit of aloha with the world,” he said. “Thousands of visitors enjoy listening to our programing via the internet long after they leave the island through our live web broadcast. I would like to think that our programing helps to connect them with Kauai and reminds them of what is important in their lives.”
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